With the homes of Palos Verdes within clear view, the 18-foot spout of an endangered blue whale steamed high in the air. Someone called “Blue — ten o’clock!”
The boat quickly motored towards the falling mist in an attempt to get a glimpse of what is considered to be the world’s largest animal in its natural habitat — feeding on the tiny shrimp-like organism, krill.
It was one of eight blue whales we saw Thursday, July 19th, on a whale-watching exploration that was inspired by the recent somewhat unusual sightings of blue whales in the Santa Monica Bay.
“We saw 18 in one day last week,” said Captain Dan Salas, who operates whale-watching tours from the port of Los Angeles in Long Beach. “Something is happening in the ocean.”
So far, no one is quite sure what is “happening” to explain the abundance of these rare marine mammals in areas where they aren’t typically found. They are most commonly seen in the krill-rich environment of the Channel Islands, but not usually in Santa Monica Bay.
“This is the first time in ten years we’ve seen them close to Point Dume [Malibu] and Point Vicente [Palos Verdes],” said marine biologist Dr. Maddalena Bearzi, founder of the Ocean Conservation Society in Marina del Rey. “Usually they don’t come so close to Santa Monica Bay. They usually stay near the Channel Islands where they have their feeding grounds.”
The boat got within about 100 yards of the massive leviathans and watched as they took seven or eight breaths in the course of a few minutes and then dove to search for their prey.
Like a conveyor belt of blubber, the 80-to-90-foot creature went below the surface for ten to 15 minutes while everyone waited for it to resurface.
“The interesting thing is that these animals are an endangered species,” said Bearzi of the recent sightings. “In the North Pacific we don’t have many left, so any chance to see them so close to the bay is very interesting.”
The population of these whales is thought to be fewer than 15,000, according to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, with the largest concentration, approximately 2,000, being in California. But in the vast space of the world’s oceans this is a small number indeed and a sighting of this rare animal should be seen as most unusual.
“The population size for blue whales, compared to their range, which is worldwide, is rather small,” said Dudley Wigdahl, marine mammal curator at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. “So the odds of coming across one are slim anyway.”
Due to their incredible size and market value, blue whales were hunted to near extinction in the early 20th century, especially in the ’30s, when whale hunting technology was becoming more sophisticated.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the global conservation organization, the “pre-whaling population may have been more than 250,000 strong. In 1931, during the heyday of whaling, an astounding 29,000 blue whales were killed in one season. In total, about 360,000 blue whales were killed in the 20th century in the Antarctic alone.”
To understand just how enormous they are, a blue whale is about the size of three school busses parked end to end, their heart is about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and a small person could crawl through their main arteries.
On this day, not five miles off the coast, in clear water with a mellow, rolling swell, whales were seemingly all around. In a span of only two hours, the group was treated to a blue whale repeatedly breaching in the distance and an up-close viewing of another seven animals.
For boaters who plan on going out to try to spot a blue, it seems the sightings have been on the track between Point Dume and Point Vicente, with a good amount showing up towards the south.
Bearzi, who spends mountains of time observing and researching the bay’s marine mammal behavior, urges boaters to be especially careful and sensitive when entering into the space of this enormous being.
“Boaters need to have maximum respect for these animals and not go close at all. They’re an endangered species and big enough where they can be observed from a distance. Don’t approach them. You don’t know the effect you have when you go close to them. And you also don’t know where they may surface.”